Even though the Ford administration adamantly maintains that their work has not been terminated, a group of volunteer scientists and public health specialists who have offered independent advice on the reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic claim that it has.
According to a statement from the Ontario Science Advisory Table, Public Health Ontario informed them last week that they would be disbanding as of September 6.
But at a news conference on Friday in Niagara Falls, Premier Doug Ford assured reporters that the work that the table had previously done will be “absorbed” by Public Health Ontario and will still be done in some capacity.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Health also told CP24 that the “the work of the Science Advisory Table (SAT) will continue” and that the “transition” currently tasking place “will help bolster its provincial resources, and ensure it can continue its strong connections with the broader academic community.”
“We aren’t dissolving it,” Ford insisted. “They are going to have a fulltime home over at public health working with (Chief Medical Officer of Health) Dr. (Kieran) Moore.”
The move to shut down the 35-member table and create a new structure under Public Health Ontario comes less than five months after the arms-length provincial agency announced that it was assuming “operation and oversight” of it. The table had previously been hosted by the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health.
It also comes on the heels of the resignation of Science Advisory Table Co-Chair Dr. Adalsteinn Brown earlier this month.
In a memo sent to Public Health Ontario President and CEO Michael Sherar and released publicly on Friday, the remaining members of the table said that they would aim to complete their existing work ahead of Sept. 6.
They then cited several “key principals” of their “original mandate,” including an ability to “identify and study any scientific question that our members felt would help Ontario fight COVID-19” and to “communicate publicly and openly about the results of our investigations.”
The table also shared several lessons that they said they learned throughout the pandemic.
Those lessons were as follows: science matters, equity counts, transparency is critical, independence must be both perceived and delivered and timeliness and relevance are essential.
“The COVID-19 pandemic continues, and it contributes to Ontario’s growing number of health system crises,” the memo states. “Each of us on the science table has a contribution to make in the effort to secure Ontario’s health, and we will now return fully to that work.”
The Ontario Science Advisory Table is made up of dozens of scientists and other experts, who have volunteered their time to study numerous aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic, often providing blunt advice to the government on the need for public health measures to limit spread.
The table also had a separate modelling group, which were responsible for frequent COVID-19 projections which often provided an early warning about impending waves of the pandemic.
In a statement released on Friday, the table’s scientific director Dr. Farhad Razak noted that it was a “great privilege” to serve on the table since its inception and said that he hoped some of the “difficult” advice it provided ultimately “helped to reduce suffering” during “the worst public health crisis in a century.”
Razak, however, warned that the “pandemic will remain a daunting challenge for the foreseeable future” and expressed hope that the “principals the table was based on” will live on in some form.
“I hope we can all take the steps necessary to reduce the burden of the pandemic to keep our system functioning in the difficult months ahead,” he said.